These words, uttered by a being who showed no particular love for humans, might have been interpreted as an insult. But Edmund was not inclined to think that way. Even if he did not always like Wolfram or understand how the man drew his conclusions, Edmund still trusted Wolfram’s senses and instincts.
He waited patiently for the man to explain, even leaning in to hear the Count continue speaking.
When he did, the elegant man spoke in strained tones. “You think men are incapable of brutality. We like to blame the unknown. And yet, we know that creatures can adjust to their surroundings. Some attune to it. Some become it.” Wolfram grimaced. “Even if in doing so it has become nothing more than a mindless beast.”
The Count slipped into silence, his hands clenching the cane while the owl on his shoulder shifted nervously.
Edmund could easily perceive the lord’s discomfort and guessed its reasons. He waited a moment before he politely cleared his throat. “And you believe that such beasts are inside?”
Wolfram shook off his malaise and gave his attention to the young man. His hand gripped the handle of his cane for a moment before he could speak again. And when he did, he was sharp and cool again. “What do you think?”
Inside, Edmund sighed. There would be no easy conversations with this man, no matter how he approached him.
Edmund was again tested. And while he did not have a gift for sensing magic, he was not blind either.
Wolfram had provided him the clues. The locked door did not mesh well with the open windows on the pub’s top floor. The sloppily discarded knife had been cast among remains of animals, possibly humans. It was not a particularly special weapon — from what he could tell it was similar to the kind sold in his parent’s shop.
Edmund’s eyes turned to the lions, waiting calmly watching the wolves trying to break into the building. The answer was clear to the young man. “You are certain that what is inside is not magic, true. Otherwise the lions would be first inside. But you are not sure exactly that we are facing the usual sort of brawl or man. Otherwise you would have allowed the guild to do as it wished.”
The Count tapped his cane on the ground for a few seconds, his light-colored eyes intensely studying Edmund. “You have sensed well.”
The young man crossed his arms, somewhat annoyed by the inspection. “I have sensed nothing. I have used nothing more than common sense. And it still may prove wrong. We shall not know anything until we go inside.”
This response drew an amused snort from Wolfram. “So says the boy.” The lord’s eyes gleamed a bit. “Yet,” he muttered to the owl. “My lady wins this bet. And you–” he turned his attention back to Edmund. “Your logic agrees with what I sense and smell. Even if there is no magic, there is still risk. We will see to it that there are no poisons or disease. We will make sure that no one lies in wait inside to kill unsuspecting passersby. We are hardier than humans when it comes to those things.” The Count’s expression grew somber. “But mind you, what is safe for wolves and men may not be for you or my spying Countess. Even if no beast or man lingers inside, it does not mean that there is nothing to see. I dare not risk that something inside cause you both grief. You must both stay here.”
With that mysterious statement, Maximilian Wolfram ungraciously thrust the owl at the lad. Edmund accepted it and watched the man stride away towards his own cousins.
Edmund reluctantly turned his attention to the fidgeting owl. It struggled within his hands to escape — the poor thing was intent on following the lord. His fingers began to pet its feathers, attempting to calm it down. “Did you not hear him? He keeps you from going so he might spare your mistress some evil sight.”
The owl ruffled its feathers, expressing the irritation that Edmund and likely Selva felt.
Edmund chuckled at himself, treating an owl as if it literally was the lady. “ Of course, he has not told us what that might be.” The man was still insufferable, even in the midst of being kind. “Well friend,” he patted the owl again. “For now, rest on my shoulder and we shall both keep an eye on him as best as we can.”
The poor creature submitted to the gentle youth and was coaxed onto the Edmund’s shoulder.
Wilhelm soon filled the spot that the Count had vacated at Edmund’s side. The red-haired man eyed the owl warily before he spoke. “This must be an outsider’s work. They were greedy at times, drunk at others. But none were killers. They could barely butcher a cow.”
“Desperation makes anything possible.” Edmund responded bluntly as they both watched the Wolframs continue to apply force to the door.
The man could not argue this point. He could only watch the door splinter and wait.
The Wolframs had paused at the doorstep, calling out for any person that might still be inside. They tried not to blanch at the stench that had greeted them. Instead, they listened for even the faintest of cries with their keen hearing.
The Count called out from close by, reminding his men what they were to do. “Go. Tell us if there is anyone inside to save.”
His words compelled them to move forward and to search the building.
Outside, the guild men stood around anxiously. They waited for a call for help or for anything. Every once in a while, a shout would be heard from inside, signaling that someone had been found. The observers tensed expectantly. But a few seconds later the call would come that the person was dead.
Thirteen times this repeated.
“Thirteen dead, zero survivors,” spat Giles as he came out the entryway. Unlike the other Wolframs who came out with him, he looked furious and anxious. Giles was familiar with the pub and the regulars who frequented the place.
The guildmaster stepped forward. “Did you see the pub keeper?”
“No,” Giles glanced away.
“Are you sure?” Wilhelm tried to step past Giles, intent on going inside.
Giles placed his hand on Wilhelm’s shoulder. When the man glared at him, he snatched his hand away and offered a weak smile in apology. He spoke carefully, his voice straining to sound normal. “In some cases, I couldn’t tell who was who. I knew the women by their boots. Some I could guess by a buckle or shoe. But I would not trouble yourself. One cannot know by simply looking.”
This pronouncement startled the guildmaster. “You must be mistaken–”
“He is rarely ever mistaken.” Count Wolfram intervened. He held up his hand to delay the guildmaster. “Giles — you cannot keep the men from going in. Some are their friends and customers. Was there evidence of magic or disease? Is there a reason to keep others from entering?”
The coachman’s shoulders dropped. Wearily, he answered. “It is safe enough. Be aware there are weapons everywhere. But no magic traps or disease, as far as we could detect.”
His answers satisfied the Count. “Guildmaster, let us go together then. But let us keep your men outside for the moment to be certain there is no risk to them and discuss what to do about the dead.”
The Count guided Wilhelm away, allowing a shaken Giles to drop to the ground to rest.
Edmund moved towards Giles, intent on offering him water and aid. However it was not as easy as he would have liked. The peculiar little owl on his shoulder kept nipping him with each step he took closer to the pub.
“You may go sit with the lions if you wish,” Edmund reprimanded the owl. He was aware of the increasing coppery and sharp smell to the air. He covered his nose with his scarf. “But your lady shall not prevent me from helping that man.”
The owl did not leave but clung anxiously to Edmund. Edmund tried to ignore the pressure of its claws poking through his coat and held out his canteen to Giles.
The gentleman’s green eyes glanced at the owl for a moment before he took the water and drank deeply. He then poured out some to wash his hands and face. When he finished, he handed the canteen back. “Thanks.”
Edmund knew well enough that the wolves did not care for indirectness. He skipped pleasantries altogether and asked what was on his mind. “Those people. How did they die?”
Giles kicked at the ground with his heel. He spoke in fragments first. “A great deal of pain. Worse than a war.” He scraped his boots on the ground, as if he was trying to rid himself of whatever he had seen inside.
Edmund closed his eyes. “Then it was not an Unthing or wyrm.”
Giles shook his head, indicating it was not so.
Edmund did not press further. Even stating that much had been difficult for the normally cheerful coachman. He sat with Giles, quietly offering the man water from time to time while they waited upon Wolfram and Wilhelm to finish their own inspection.
When they appeared outside, both sported a dark look.
Wilhelm turned to his hunters, speaking first. “I do not think we should press on for today. Given the death of our fellow townspeople, I’d ask you to help us give their souls a proper burial. On this matter, Count Wolfram and I are agreed.” He glanced back at the Count. “ We will send a few of you back to ask for a few more sets of hands and tools. We need the friar here as well. Avoid accepting help from the townspeople. This is not something for the faint of heart.”
As they settled down to the business of delegating who should go and who should stay behind to deal with the bodies, Edmund stood. Giles slipped away and melted back into the band of Wolfram cousins.
The young man waited for the Count[‘s approach. Edmund held out his arm, allowing the owl upon it to slowly make its way down to his glove. The tiny creature did inch towards its master but did not yet leave Edmund, waiting for tacit permission to do so.
The Count ignored the owl, resting the tip of his cane on the ground. “Many of your younger companions appear to be leaving.”
Behind those words was the suggestion that Edmund ought to go with them. Edmund’s mouth turned up slightly. Even if he was this man’s blood son, he would still not bow and scrape before him. “This is my town and my business. I will wait.”
“You hear that?” the Count muttered at the owl. “He wishes to stay. Do not blame me if he ends up violently ill under your care!”
“Whoo!” The owl acknowledged as it fled to Edmund’s shoulder.
Wolfram sighed. “ Whatever you do, do not touch or study the bodies. Should you see the truth of what happened to them it could have dreadful consequences.”
Edmund’s interest was piqued by that last remark. It took him enormous discipline to not automatically turn his attention towards the wrapped remains of the dead that began to appear outside the pub. “You mean I would fall under some kind of curse?”
Count Wolfram shook the tip of his cane at Edmund. “Curses are magic,” the Count said irritably. “This is more a matter of being contaminated. Leave this matter to others.”
Edmund was wise enough to see that the Count, in his somewhat abrasive way, was trying to shield him from something horrid.
What the man had seen made him brusque and impatient in his manner. Likewise, Wilhelm seemed to be out of sorts. The man was usually not the kind to engage in useless activity. However, Wilhelm was pacing back and forth outside of the pub. This did not stop until the others had returned.
Wilhelm was not a religious man but the friar’s arrival appearance appeared to relieve some unexpressed anxiety. He hurried towards the friar and helped him dismount from his horse.
The friar made a direct line for the bodies. Wilhelm spoke quickly, intent on keeping the man from lifting the cloths that hid the bodies. “Father, it is an ugly sight. Their bodies are broken and you will dislodge them further.”
The friar’s eyes rounded. “Do not fret, guildmaster. I have seen many things, evil things. I will look now.”
The Count joined them as the friar knelt down, effectively blocking Edmund’s view of the scene.
The friar paused to bow his head. He did this for each of the piles he inspected, lips moving fervently in prayer for each of the thirteen who had died here. When he finished, Wilhelm helped him stand while the Count carefully rewrapped the bodies.
Father Lorrence could not move. He stood there for a moment, his head raised to the heavens in anguish.
“What must we do, friar?” Wilhelm spoke urgently. “Do we build boxes?”
“We do not have a few days to build boxes,” the Count spoke sternly. He spoke loud enough that all could hear. “You bring a cart but we cannot move such a thing to your church grounds. The way may be blocked and we do not have time or manpower to clear out roads and paths. Is there not some rite the friar can do before we burn the bodies?”
The friar sighed. “Burning the bodies is not our custom. Many people believe a body has to be intact as they leave this world.”
“But they did not die in a customary way,” pressed the Count. “ It is not disrespectful to use a pyre — many peoples in this area used to do it to prevent the bodies being dug up or consumed by animals. Those who attach spiritual significance to it say fire also burns away the vessel that contains the soul.”
Friar Lorrence considered the situation. “When we have no body, we offer prayers as well. That seems to be what I must do here. If your practice is also meant in a respectful manner, I cannot object. Those poor souls will need every blessing we can render.”
“Then we shall build a pyre,” the Count glanced at Wilhelm making sure he would also accept this arrangement. “My men will help prepare the remains of the fountain for such a use. If you and the friar can supervise how the bodies are carried there according to your customs, we will also help in that way.”
None understood this peculiar agreement, cobbled together from the customs of disparate peoples and beliefs. However, the wolves and hunters knew they must work together to honor it.
It was only when the fire was finally started that they began to perceive the uniqueness of the pyre that they had built. As the flames began to grow, they had begun to change from orange and reds to blue and white.
The men had to stand back from the brilliant light that began to consume everything inside the pyre, flesh, blood, wood, earth, and stone. Together, these things burned — sending particles of light and dust free from their current state.
The ashes floated like moths riding a warm updraft towards the sky.
They rose to where the winds were waiting to embrace them.